Bashar al-Assad is seeking to rebuild his dynasty following elections in May, which were slammed as a “sham”, as acceptance quietly grows for the authoritarian leader among Arab states following a brutal 10-year civil war. While the United States and European Union refuse to recognize his control over Syria and have therefore ruled out financial investment for the country, and Moscow and Tehran cannot afford to foot the bill for rebuilding Syria, Assad has sought assistance from China and wealthier regional powers.
On November 5th, China’s President Xi Jinping called Assad, fuelling speculation that Beijing may take a greater interest in Syria, and perhaps raising hopes within the cash-strapped Assad regime.
“Xi Jinping pointed out that China firmly supports Syria in safeguarding its national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national dignity, and firmly opposes interference by external forces in Syria’s internal affairs,” a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The statement added that the Chinese President “is confident that Syria will overcome various risks and challenges and achieve new victories in the struggle to defend independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and the Syrian people will embrace a better future”.
For his part, Assad said he “attaches great importance to its friendly relations with China, supports the Belt and Road Initiative, hopes to expand and deepen cooperation with China, and welcomes Chinese companies to increase investment in Syria,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Damascus and met President Assad on November 9th. This meeting, in which both sides reportedly discussed strengthening investment partnerships, followed various Emirati overtures to build ties and normalize relations with the Syrian regime in recent weeks and throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
As the United States struggles to prevent, or passively allows, other countries’ engagement with the Syrian regime, China’s growing economic influence in the region would be another boost to regional actors like the UAE in their bid to empower the Assad regime. Ultimately, it would enable Assad to further consolidate its influence over the country.
Beijing’s superficial interests in Syria
Over the last decade, China has sought to expand its global economic footprint through its so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Syria has been seen as a possible location for China to realize such ambitions, as it aims to develop its foreign policy.
Since securing greater military control over Syria, Assad has often welcomed greater Chinese investment and efforts to rebuild the war-torn country. Meanwhile, China has often joined forces with Russia in vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions against Assad, indicating it prefers the Assad regime and is defying the West.
Despite some speculation that China could take a direct role in reconstructing Syria, experts have cast doubts on Beijing’s willingness to do so.
“Beijing is unlikely to drastically alter its approach to Syria but is instead continuing with its approach of careful hedging,” Lucille Greer, Schwarzman Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told al-Araby al-Jadeed. “Many of the factors that make China cautious about Syria, including instability, corruption, and violent extremism, are still in play.”
“In the Middle East, China is extremely mindful of what the U.S. does because Washington is the traditional partner of many countries of the region and China prioritizes its relationship with the U.S. over its relations with the Middle East,” she added. “For China, the U.S. is definitely more important than Syria.”
After all, the Donald Trump-era Caesar Act entails sanctions on those who do business with Damascus while Assad is in control. Although the UAE has been able to find small loopholes and subtly engage with Assad, the act has largely deterred overt regional cooperation with the Syrian regime, and the threat of sanctions has made China even more hesitant to invest in Syria.
Guy Burton, adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, acknowledges there have been changes in China’s stance towards Syria, but he doesn’t believe “they are significant enough to make the kind of investment and stimulate sufficient economic activity to prove transformative”.
“The World Bank’s 2017 estimate for the loss of Syria’s GDP between 2010-16 was $226 billion, which was double the size of its GDP in 2010,” Burton said. “That number also goes up every year, so the estimate of rebuilding Syria is now around $250-400 billion.”
While it would be costly for China to help rebuild Syria, Beijing may also feel that there would be a limited return on any investment in Syria’s infrastructure, given the economic struggles within the country after a decade of war, and that there would be limited domestic finance going into rebuilding. Indeed, the poverty line in regime-controlled areas has in some cases reached more than 90%.
“At the same time, the relationship between Assad and the West is antagonistic. So, he’s not exactly looking for the West’s assistance, which puts China in a stronger position. But again, that depends a lot on whether Beijing wants to get involved, and even if it chose to do so, it’s not going to be plain sailing,” Burton added.
A growing regional détente
The UAE is cheerleading a regional wave of normalization with the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia has also followed suit in improving ties with Syria, despite being a key backer of the Syrian opposition during the country’s civil war.
Jordan has also urged the United States to allow more freedom to engage with the Assad regime. On October 3rd, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Assad for the first time since 2011, and this followed Jordanian officials urging the U.S. to permit trade between Amman and Damascus.
Aside from Qatar, which has staunchly opposed normalization with Assad, a gradual shift in Arab engagement is evidently occurring and raises the prospects of Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Indeed, China’s expanding clout could make regional actors even more willing to engage with Syria in the future. Ultimately, it would be beneficial to Abu Dhabi and Beijing’s fledging regional partnership.
“The UAE has become China’s most trusted partner in integrating Abu Dhabi’s own regional infrastructure and port strategy into the BRI,” Dr. Andreas Krieg, Associate Professor at Kings College, London, told al-Araby al-Jadeed. “The UAE has been conscious of China’s requirement to control or at least have access to strategic choke points and mostly maritime infrastructure.”
Krieg argued further that cooperation between the UAE and China was indeed a crucial factor in the reconciliation between Assad and Syria.
“The UAE has become China’s most trusted partner in integrating Abu Dhabi’s own regional infrastructure and port strategy into the BRI”
“I would see the engagement with the Assad regime by China and the UAE as a geo-strategic and an ideological one. For both Beijing and Abu Dhabi, the Assad regime is a like-minded authoritarian regime whose sovereignty in dealing with civil society and insurgency domestically must not be violated. The UAE and China also see the Assad regime as the only guarantor of stability in Syria and therefore want to normalize relations with the regime while at the same time offering avenues for the regime to reintegrate into regional organizations.”
“For the UAE that is about building a sustainable long-term footprint in an important Middle Eastern country and supporting networks that it then can offer to its partners in East and West. The speculation in Abu Dhabi is that eventually, the West will normalize relations with the Assad regime, at which point the UAE controls the space,” added Krieg.
Clearly, despite currently being shunned by the West, Assad is gaining new partnerships which will likely further enable his normalization. Yet his regime is merely seen as a useful tool for many regional powers, and with a lack of desire to invest in Syria, this could hamper his efforts to rebuild Syria according to his own wishes.
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